Archive for the Child Stars Category

Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals

Posted in African American Interest, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Child Stars, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on February 2, 2017 by travsd

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I hoped to love Julia Lee’s Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals (2015) because the subject is right up my alley: the social and cultural impact of a classic American film comedy series. But for an academic book I found it curiously half-baked, possessing at once too much and too little of several key aspects of the story it wants to tell.

As is well known, Hal Roach’s Our Gang series of comedy shorts was groundbreaking in its integration of African American actors into its all-kid casts. Since the series ran for 20 years, the kids were periodically replaced as they aged out. Over the life of the series there were four key African American kids in the series, each taking his turn as the star, almost like a relay race. The first two, Sunshine Sammy and Farina were the undisputed stars of the series during their stints. The second two, Stymie and Buckwheat, were among the most popular and best known in the films, but appeared during the years when Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla held center stage. The tag team element suggests a structure in four sections, each focusing on each of the young actors. It’s latently there; Lee’s own book suggests it. The strongest element in the book is the biographical material on these four child actors.

The problem is that in her attempts to broaden the scope of the book and make it more ambitious, Lee doesn’t go nearly far enough. There is some commendable background on blackface minstrelsy and stereotypical stock characters like the pickaninny and zip coon, but not nearly enough to justify the title of the book. There was at least a century of backstory leading up to Sunshine Sammy’s screen debut; it didn’t happen in a minute. Likewise, the author’s familiarity with the films themselves strikes me as superficial, or at least there is scant evidence of any deep engagement with the films in the writing here. There is some description of a very few films, but surprisingly little and without much insight. In that respect, this is not a book I would recommend to film or comedy buffs, most of whom will be light years ahead of the author in terms of their familiarity with the material. Also, there is virtually nothing about what was happening in OTHER films of the same period. Other child stars, other African American stars, other comedy stars. She reveals a lack of breadth in her familiarity with the scope of her subject when she trots out The Jazz Singer for the millionth time, as though that were some sort of key blackface movie, when its only landmark aspect was sound. I find an emphasis on that movie in this context dilettantish. Blackface was ubiquitous in 1927. And what was happening on stage at the time? In comic strips? It’s necessary to compare and contrast all this material for any kind of true picture to emerge and it’s just not here. Some of the backstage interactions she quotes from primary source material are clearly studio press release fluff, to be regarded with a grain of salt at best, but the author communicates little awareness of this. And while it is appropriate for the other (white) actors in the series to be backgrounded in this book, perhaps not as much as has been done here, as one gets no sense of their personalities, or how the white kids and black kids compared in terms of screen time, and so forth.

Lee’s book does give a nice sense of the inherent contradiction of the racial aspects of Our Gang. It broke much new ground, by having an integrated cast, by humanizing its African American actors…even while it perpetuated muted iterations of traditional stereotypes now distasteful to us. During the TV era, Lee tells us, whites in the South protested the broadcast of the films because they were too sympathetic to blacks, then a few years later groups like the NAACP protested the showings because of the stereotypes! Ya can’t win for losing. But from the perspective of 2017 they make wonderful teaching tools, and charming ones too. So from that angle, I’d recommend Lee’s book, especially to young people and newbies. Its heart is in the right place even if it needs a lot more elbow grease to transform it into the book the subject deserves.

 

Stars of Vaudeville #1024: Percy Helton

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on January 31, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of ubiquitous Hollywood character actor Percy Helton (Percy Alfred Michel, 1894-1971). We’ll get get into his movies anon, but few people probably know how charmed his career was in its early years.

Helton’s career began at the age of two in the vaudeville act of his father, British-born Alf Helton (real name William Alfred Michel). By age 12 he was on Broadway, appearing in Julie BonBon. He was in the original production of David Belasco’s The Return of Peter Grimm (1911) and the original production of George M. Cohan’s The Miracle Man (1914). And he was to be a familiar face on Broadway stages through 1942. Here is a clip I found from his theatre days:

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Meanwhile in 1915 he began appearing in films. His first movie sounds too good to be true: In The Fairy and the Waif (1915), directed by Marie Hubert Frohman (wife of Gustave Frohman), he played the Waif to a Fairy played by Mary Miles Minter (later a chief suspect in the William Desmond Taylor murder). He appeared in another 5 silent movies through 1925 and then doesn’t return to Hollywood films until 1936, and THAT’S when he becomes the Percy Helton we all know and…”love”, I guess?

The leap, the important difference, was that now he was middle aged. He was a small guy. In fact he was playing children’s parts well past childhood. For example, in The Return of Peter Grimm, when he played “Little Willem”, he was 17 years old. And so he was a juvenile for as long as he could get away with it. But when he reached middle age, he became something of a grotesque, almost freakish in appearance. Short and rotund and yet stooped, nearly hunchbacked, he would have been a good person to play Marshall P. Wilder. Then that face: the venal, leering eyes, a Nixonian nose, and a toothy, drooling gash of a mouth. He was balding, and such hair as he possessed always seemed too long and unkempt.  And he had a high-pitched, scratchy voice not unlike that of the equally ubiquitous John Fiedler.

For such a unique and strange character, Helton’s uses in film ensembles appeared to be limitless. Who knew there would be so much need for seedy, nasty, cowardly little creeps in movies? Here’s something interesting: the first place I truly sat up and took note of him was in a screening at a film festival of the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). When detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) gets fed up with Helton’s infuriating lack of cooperation, he slaps his face and crushes his fingers in a desk drawer until he complies. It’s a shocking, appalling scene, perhaps all the more so because a) it’s being done to this familiar person; and b) he pretty much deserves it.  But what I find especially interesting is, when I look at his credits, I had easily seen him in two dozen other movies prior to this. This one shocked me into taking note of who he was, so that I would always note him ever after.

He was especially sought after for westerns, usually as bank tellers, train conductors, hotel clerks, and that sort of thing. There’s no point in listing them — it’s dozens. Same with noir: he’s always, like, a pawn broker, or the manager of a fleabag hotel or something. He plays the drunken Santa who gets fired in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Jerry Lewis seemed to be a special fan: Helton appears in My Friend Irma (1949), The Stooge (1951), Sacred Stiff (1953), The Big Mouth (1967), and Lewis’s TV show. He also appears with Groucho Marx in A Girl in Every Port (1952), with Abbott and Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff (1949) and numerous Bowery Boys comedies. Really, he was in pretty much everything. Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), A Star is Born (1954) White Christmas (1954) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Jailhouse Rock (1957), The Music Man (1962), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). He’s even in the Monkees’ movie Head (1968). It’s worth a peek at his IMDB page, it’s quite impressive.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold

Stars of Vaudeville #1003: Allen “Farina” Hoskins

Posted in African American Interest, Child Stars, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Allen Hoskins (1920-1980) best known for his groundbreaking role as the character “Farina” in Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts.

Hoskins literally grew up in front of the camera. Born in Boston, he was hired for the Our Gang cast in 1922 before he was even two years old. His character was named after the popular breakfast mush, often served by mothers as baby food. Like certain cartoon characters (Krazy Kat comes to mind) Farina was identified neither as male nor female, and played both sex roles as the plot warranted. He was often attired in a dress, and wore a head full of hair bows in the traditional style of the stage “pick” or “pickaninny”, perhaps most indelibly personified by the character of Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Because of this, even though Farina was one of the first African Americans to become a national movie star, and was in one of the first integrated casts, and was better paid than most adults in the county for about a decade, by the second half of the twentieth century he was saddled with this association with a negative stereotype. As with Jolson (whose reputation seems tarnished today on account of The Jazz Singer despite the fact that in his day nearly everyone in show business both black and white performed in blackface at least occasionally), Farina’s rep is brought down for having been a pick…when the reality is, again, he was only the most prominent of hundreds of scuh performers stretching out across the decades. Today we should look at it with clear eyes. We no longer wish to dehumanize African Americans in how we portray them in movies. But in 1922 most people looked at things quite differently.

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Farina was the biggest star of Our Gang through its early years of 1922 through 1931, which mostly embraced the silent period and a couple of years of talkies. He was let go when he was 11, and no longer an adorable cherub. He was replaced by Mathew “Stymie” Beard (the kid who wore the derby). This was the period when Farina went into vaudeville for a couple of years, joined onstage by his sister Jannie “Mango” Hoskins (who had also appeared in Our Gang shorts from 1926 to 1929). They were still children at the time; their mother Florence accompanied them on their tour.

From 1932 through 1936, Farina enjoyed a brief solo film career, co-starring with Joe E. Brown and Ginger Rogers in You Said a Mouthful (1932) (in which he is quite good), and getting uncredited bit parts in classics like Reckless (1935), Winterset (1936), and After the Thin Man (1936).  After this, the movie work dried up for good. Hoskins then served in the army for 5 years (1940-1945). After the war, he auditioned for a time, but never got cast. He left Hollywood and moved to the San Francisco area where did odd jobs, then trained to be an aide at psychiatric facilities. Within a decade he was in leadership positions at centers for the disabled, and became a well known public advocate for their welfare, a role in life he occupied until he passed away in 1980.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Stars of Vaudeville #999: Jane Frazee/ The Frazee Sisters

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Sister Acts, Vaudeville etc., Westerns, Women on July 18, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Jane Frazee (Mary Jane Frehse, 1918-1985). Jane started out in show business at age six in a vaudeville act with her older sister Ruth called the Frazee Sisters. In addition to vaudeville, the pair appeared together in nightclubs, on radio, and in several movie shorts released between 1935 and 1939. At this juncture, the pair both took screen tests. Jane passed; Ruth didn’t.

In 1940, Jane began her career as a solo movie actress in the B movie musical Melody and Moonlight.  She appeared in around 40 feature length pictures through the end of the 1940s, including several more Moonlight musicals, the Abbott and Costello hit Buck Privates (1941), Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin (1941), and numerous western musicals with the like likes of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. After this she appeared on television for a few years, and co-starred in the “Joe McDoakes” shorts from 1954 through 1956.

Jane Frazee was married four times; the best known of her husbands was silent movie star and director Glenn Tryon. 

For more on vaudeville history, consulNo Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Some Vaudeville Fathers

Posted in Child Stars, Father's Day, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2016 by travsd

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It being the annual day given to honor Paternal Progenitors it seemed appropriate to look at a few with a vaudeville connection, as we had done with Mothers previously. We have already blogged about all of these fellers. Just follow the link to read more about the gents in question.

And vaudeville fathers DESERVE a special tribute. You know who sucks? NON-vaudeville fathers. So many of our great stars FLED from stern, domineering, controlling male parents who disapproved of their career choice and their life style, only to be appropriately scorned for their obtuseness by the annals of history. There was Al Jolson’s father, the cantor, later dramatized in The Jazz Singer. W.C. Fields’ father, the produce grocer. Ed Wynn’s father, the dealer in hats. These men all wanted and expected their sons to go into the family business, tried to force the issue, and later got their noses rubbed in it. Joe Frisco’s father threw his dancing clogs into a woodburning stove. Such parenting techniques rarely work out.

Much more to the purpose are the show biz dads, who groomed their kids to join them in the family business. Here are a few:

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Eddie Foy

Eddie Foy was the ultimate of course. That is why we put him at the top, and place his picture as the header of the posts. The proud papa paraded his seven kids across the nation’s vaudeville stages, showing off their talents, and turning them into a mini-industry. The act was so well-loved it was later memorialized a bio-pic starring Bob Hope. 

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Gerry Cohan

Equally deserving of the top spot! If you’re like me, your view of the famously gentle, indulgent father will be forever shaped by Walter Huston’s loving portrait in Yankee Doodle Dandy. My mother thanks you, my father thanks you…

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Joe Keaton

Okay, maybe the famously alcoholic, short-tempered and violence prone father of Buster Keaton doesn’t deserve a mug that says “World’s Greatest Dad”, but I think the fact that Buster never disparaged him, and remained close to him, and even cast him in his movies, speaks volumes.

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Sam “Frenchy” Marx

Far from disapproving of his sons’ chosen career, he was often the designated audience plant whose job it was to cue laughter during their early days in vaudeville.

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Lew Fields

One half of vaudeville’s greatest comedy team Weber and Fields, Fields later became an important Broadway producer in his own right, and instilled in his children Dorothy, Herbert and Joseph such love of the theatre that they all became important Broadway creators in their own right.

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Arthur “A.J.” Jefferson

Stan Laurel’s father, a man of the regional U.K. theatre himself. He built Stan a toy theatre when he was a kid, and got him some of his first jobs.

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Charles Chaplin, Sr.

Okay, Charlie Senior was the textbook definition of a deadbeat dad…but he was pretty crucial to Charlie’s career in the early years, and without a doubt provided him with a useful cautionary example of the evils of drink.

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Danny Lewis

Is there any doubt that if the Lewises hadn’t grossly neglected their famous child by touring the vaudeville and nightclub circuits he wouldn’t be the man he is today. Jerry Lewis is a man who needs a LITTLE attention. The picture above shows three generations of performing Lewis men. The youngster is Jerry’s son Gary, who with his group The Playboys had some hits in the mid-60s.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #987: Vera Gordon

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, MEDIA, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Russian, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Vera Gordon (Vera Pogoreslsky, 1886-1948). Pogorelsky began acting at age 11 in her native Russia. After marrying writer/director Nathan A. Gordon the two immigrated to the U.S. with their three month old infant in 1905. Unable to speak English, they moved to the Lower East Side, and began appearing in Yiddish theatre and vaudeville.

A little over a decade later she was playing Broadway, the West End, and Big Time Vaud theatres, including the Palace, where she appeared in a sketch called “Lullabye”. In her book, The Palace, Marion Spitzer writes of bringing a group of Palace stars up to Sing Sing for a charity performance, and Gordon being so moved by the plight of one of the inmates that she helped to get him paroled.

Gordon’s biggest mark was to come in motion pictures, where she was generally cast at the traditional Jewish mother, staring with the silent smash Humoresque (based on a Fanny Hurst novel) in 1920. In 1923 she did the film version of Potash and Perlmutter, a play she had starred in in London four years earlier. Today she may be best remembered for starring in the Cohens and the Kellys series of comedies throughout the 1920s with Charlie Murray and others. Her last film was Eddie Sutherland’s remake of Abie’s Irish Rose in 1946.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Wanda Nevada

Posted in Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on May 31, 2016 by travsd

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Wanda Nevada (1979)

Today is the birthday of Brooke Shields (b. 1965). Today we talk about her 1979 buddy picture with Peter FondaWanda Nevada. 

In the cinema, Fonda is best known for producing, co-writing and starring in the 1969 hippie motorcycle epic Easy Rider. It’s lesser known that he directed three movies, as well: the 1971 western The Hired Hand, the 1973 science fiction tale Idaho Transfer, and 1979’s Wanda Nevada. 

Wanda Nevada is an interesting animal and no mistake. It has much in common with Paper Moon (1973), and the yet to be released Butterfly (1982) in that it centers around an iffy borderline relationship between a roguish father figure (Fonda) and an underage girl on the fringes of society. Here, the girl is played by the already sexualized 13 year old Shields, fresh from the previous years’ Pretty Baby and The King of the Gypsies, although her notorious Calvin Klein ad, The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love were still ahead of her.

Set in the American southwest of the 1950s, con man and gambler Fonda wins the precocious but still innocent Shields in a card game.Though she is clearly intended for immoral purposes, Fonda doesn’t use her that way: he treats her well, though the two constantly bicker. She’s the typical smart-mouthed kid from ’70s movies. She says she wants to be a singer at the Grand Ole Opry (“Wanda Nevada” is her stage name) but that plot point rapidly vanishes as the duo get deep into their adventures.

The pair learn about a possible gold mine in the Grand Canyon so they head there, riding into the rim on mules. Along the way they meet Peter’s dad Henry Fonda in one of his last roles as a crazy, eccentric old prospector.

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They meet with up with an English ornithologist in a pith helmet. And they are pursued by some bad guys who are after the gold themselves. The pedophiliac birdwatcher tries to kidnap Wanda but she puts paid to that. She knows how to take care of herself.  Then from out of nowhere a gorgeous female photographer shows up and she becomes briefly becomes the love interest for Fonda, so now the girl is a fifth wheel. Then the woman goes her own way.

They find the legendary “Ghost Apache”, and an Indian boneyard and, eventually a huge cache of gold. They have a shoot out with the bad guys, who are chased off. But their mules are stolen, and getting out of the canyon proves difficult, until they find a boat and go down the river. Then Fonda is shot by an Apache Ghosts arrow in the night and dies. The girl returns to the orphanage from which she had run away. In the end, there’s a big press circus, and it turns out Fonda’s not dead. He pulls up in a big car and drives off with the (still) 13 year old girl, presumably toward more adventures.

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Ostensibly the point in such movies seems to be the ambiguity of the relationship, somewhere between father-daughter and a romantic couple, although Fonda’s character never crosses the line or gets even close (even when Shield’s character would have it otherwise). Yet it’s still troubling. Shields was a gorgeous child, and she’s wearing make-up, and nearly every man in the movies expresses their desire for her. And though Fonda remains paternal…well he’s Peter Fonda, so he’s just as creepy and icky and objectionable, with his slinky, porn-character manner and his wispy mustache, panama hats, and dead fish eyes.

In some ways the film is salvaged by the fact that the two leads are both such exceptionally weak actors. If they had interior lives the implications of the script would come out even more. For the most part these two limited performers just drive around and say their lines to one another. (Although Fonda is doing something interesting with his character — I swear he’s doing a John Wayne impression at certain points).

Just about all of Fonda’s movies as producer or director are road pictures, and this is a prime example. It rambles, and lacks shape, and one feels more tension in the implied relationship between the two stars than from the supposed threats they face: robbers, kidnappers, ghosts, and death from starvation, thirst, or heat stroke. But it is an interesting document from that decade in which film-makers would ask the question, “You know, no one’s ever been quite this skeevy in a mainstream feature film. Perhaps people will line up and buy tickets if we go THERE.”

 

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